THE PSYCHOPHYSICAL IMPACT OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING
By Jordan Weiss
Through my years as a competitive fighter, I have experienced many ups and downs both physically and emotionally. Training to become a fighter more than anything is like an emotional roller coaster. There have been times in my training where I have felt like I was untouchable and triumphed over just about everyone I stepped in the ring with, (besides my instructors of course). I also was in prime fighting condition so I could train continuously for long periods of time. I remember a time where I was tapping guys out left and right and giving them hell in kick box sparring. I was only 18 years old when I was “in my prime” for fighting.
There have also been times, more recently, where I've been injured and mentally burnt out from training. I used to fight and train three to four hours a day, six days a week. This was all in my quest to receive a black belt under the Freestyle Mixed Martial Arts Counsel. Black belts in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) are not the same as black belts in other systems such as Karate or Tai Kwon Do. Especially under the training system of my head instructor, Derek Panza, the quest to black belt is made exceedingly difficult. If one has natural athletic ability and good coordination, it would take approximately six years of continuous, rigorous training and sparring (both in striking and in submission grappling) to obtain a black belt in MMA.
I have been training in MMA for 6 years now, and I've taught for about 3 years. I now currently hold the rank of 1 st Degree Brown Belt under the Freestyle Mixed Martial Arts Counsel. About two years ago, I was becoming lethargic, and failing to meet the demands of my head instructor. I think I had become so emotionally and physically burnt out from all the training I had done over the years. And one day in the ring, I got beaten up pretty badly, to the point where I had increasing headaches and panic attacks from all the trauma to the head. “I would by now be dragging my weary limbs and ready to drop with sleep; the balmy scent of the lime-trees seemed a reward that could be won only at the price of great fatigue and was not worth the effort.” (Proust, p. 159)
Fight training can really change a person. Mostly, it should make one more humble and disciplined. Sometimes, however, it could make one irritable and impatient. I've poured my heart and soul into MMA to obtain the rank of black belt. My mentor (head instructor) made the criteria for me more difficult than anyone else. Because I wanted to become an instructor, he expected more from me than any normal student, whether it be a man, woman, or child/teenager. So after the incident in the ring two years ago, with the exception of some bag and mitt training here and there, as well as teaching some, I had taken (in my mind I believe to be a self-forced) hiatus from fighting. And I had to accept that I was no longer going to compete even if I did come back to the ring, simply because it had become very dangerous for me to have any more trauma to my head.
In recent months, I had gone back to submission fighting, and now I can train with sparring drills, ones that such do not entail getting hit in my head. Now that I can no longer “fully” spar, my head instructor expects even more from me as far as technical skill is concerned. It is understood now to him and me that if I continue to train with the grappling and kickboxing techniques, that I should receive a black belt in approximately one year. I will teach MMA now. That is where my “destiny” lies.
As I stated before, training to be a fighter (whether you compete or not) is both a physical and emotional roller coaster. But if you hang on, and you have enough motivation and determination, much like anything in life, you can achieve it. Like a recent contestant on Deal or No Deal said in reference to having $1,000,000 in his chosen case, “If you believe, you can achieve!”
Martial Artists are for the most part concerned with becoming better people and reducing violence in them and in society. “It is likely that some of the psychosocial benefits from martial arts practice originate from physical activity, since exercise in many forms can promote psychological well-being.” (Leith and Taylor, 1990; Simono, 1991; Weiser et al., 1995) Further research has indicated that there are significant benefits between the martial arts and other activities in that MMA specifically reduces hostility and improves self esteem.
One of the most interesting, moving stories I have heard from any fighter has to be from my former kickboxing trainer, Tim Lane . Some people say that martial arts can help “turn your life around”, or “get you thinking straight”, etc. Based on my experience with Tim, in training for six years, I have come to know him as one of the nicest guys I have ever met in my life.
Tim's affable personality is what I would find out over time to be only one side of Tim and a relatively new “side” it turned out to be. When Tim was growing up, in the Carolinas and Virginia , he got involved with delinquent, trouble-making people and activities. He joined gangs, stole cars, beat people up, (sending them to the hospital), and was just an all around bad kid/teenager. His parents divorced when he was young, but I'm not sure as to whether or not that is the sole cause of Tim's behavior. Tim had been in the martial arts ever since he was a young boy. He was involved in Karate and Judo. Both judo (Greene, 1987) and karate (Gorbel, 1990) have been useful in reducing dysfunctional behaviors in male, behaviorally disordered adolescents. This undoubtedly coupled with his rage, made him into an even more vicious person.
Eventually, Tim had landed himself in Prison. He spent five years in jail. He had told me while he was in there, he thought about where his life had taken him, and he knew when he got out that he'd have to get his life together. He always wanted to take his martial arts to the next level and ascend to full contact kickboxing. He was/is very talented and had a tremendous drive to succeed. After Tim was released from Prison, he went up north to New York City / Long Island . There he went to Gleeson's Gym and met World Champion, Derek Panza, as well as Zab Judha, a well renowned stand up fighter.
He told me that he used to sleep there, at Gleeson's. He lived in that gym, and spent every free moment, training himself or observing other fighters. I forget the exact sequence of events, but he had met Derek, who was just about to open up his own gym/school in Long Island . Derek wanted Tim to be one of his instructors. Tim accepted and continued to fight under the training of Derek himself, amongst others.
It was Tim's life long dream to be a world champion in full contact kickboxing. “It is as much who they are as their gender. They are constantly searching to find balance, to have inner peace and happiness, to be useful to humankind, to leave positive footprints while they are here on earth.” (Johnson, p.142) After aligning himself with Derek, Tim rose to stardom fairly quickly. He had won the Super Lightweight International Championship in September 2001. He would then go on to face the world champion at Mohegan Sun, but the champ backed out last minute due to an illness. Tim was beside himself. I remember that night so clearly. Tim became enraged and began to get out of control much like he did when he was growing up. Derek was there to calm him down, but you can see the look in Tim's eyes. It is as if he was burning a hole through the arena, it was so powerful. “And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.” (Proust p.59)
Then finally four months later, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City , in February 2003, with a plethora of kicks and punches, Tim knocked out the champ in the fourth round to become the Full Contact Kickboxing Super Lightweight World Champion. “With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him first this way, then that, towards a state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and yet precise.” (Proust p. 296)
Tim had finally achieved his life long dream. Not only did he attain the world title, but he also changed his ways, and turned himself into a great, humble, soft spoken individual and an inspiration for many.
The only thing is though he has told me stories of despair and times where his training got the best of him. He shadowed the monster he once was as a child/teenager. I have seen Tim in bad moods before, and he is unapproachable. He turns into a completely different person. He gets nasty, snappy, and has this energy he holds that as I said before at the fight in Mohegan Sun, where it is almost like he burns a hole through the entire surrounding area and everyone in it.
So once again this begs the question as to whether or not competitive fighting/mixed martial arts in fact helps one grow both emotionally and spiritually. With Tim's success story, one could conclude that it is beneficial to bettering one's self…..or could they?
Several studies have suggested that participation in martial arts is associated with decreased feelings in assaultive and verbal hostility (Daneils K, Thornton E., 1992). In a study by Zivin, “Juveniles at high risk for violence and delinquency showed decreased violence and positive changes in psychological risk factors after being required to take a school-linked course in traditional martial arts.” (Zivin G, 2001) “In addition, (Paul, 1979) showed that Judo led to lower rates in violence in use than did two sports programs and (Kutner et al ., 1997) showed that Taijiquan training, but not control activities, led to positive changes in overall life satisfaction.”
Not all studies have shown positive effects of martial arts training. (Kroll and Carlson, 1967) “Found no correlation between the length of time studying karate and personality traits. In addition, (Delva and Tauilili, 1995) showed children who trained in Aikido showed no changes in self control as reported by their teachers.”
It is likely that inclusion of non-physical aspects of the martial arts during training or the instructing acting as a positive role model may promote long term positive changes. Sometimes, however, the relationship between Sensei and student can be a negative influence. By November 2006, my relationship with my head instructor had now reached that point.
In recent months, the feud between me and my head instructor, Derek Panza, came to a head when we met each other in the ring. It wasn't always like this. Years ago, he was my mentor. Knowing him transformed my life. I was fourteen then and I needed something to help focus my life and give me a sense of dignity and worth. I looked up to him as a role model. He wasn't big yet, but he was going to become my head trainer, and my mentor. The place was a rinky dink garage, but he advertised that he would teach mixed martial arts and make man of you. Later on, he would become more successful and obtain a larger viewable gym in a major town.
My father was against it. He was afraid that I was going to get hurt, which, of course, I did eventually. I got physically and mentally burnt out, more specifically, concussions from blows to my head. So I took a hiatus from the ring and tried to become the best instructor I could be despite my limitations. And then at the moment I was really coming into my own after my hiatus from training, he wouldn't give me the overt respect in the form of the belt that he said I really deserved. And to add injury to insult, he challenged me to a fight in the ring saying he wouldn't hit me in the head, but he thought nothing of slamming my neck causing reverberation to my head. Knowing I wasn't supposed to really fight and get my head at all disrupted, he baited me with a belt that I was supposed to get and said, “If you want it, come take it from me…”, I couldn't help myself. Between the inner rage/anger I was harboring and the pressure from my colleagues and other competitors in the gym, I said nothing and got in the ring, ready to take a beating and give him hell in the process.
Stress is sometimes conceptualized as a reaction to physically and psychologically taxing events (Selye, 1993) but a more sophisticated definition views stress as a complex interaction between people and their environments (Lazarus 1999). The Most Stressful events are those that are said to be negative, uncontrollable, ambiguous, unpredictable, and/or require significant adaptation (DiMatteo & Martin, 2002; Dougall & Baum, 2001). This was arguably the most stressful moment in my life; staring down at the World Super Heavyweight Champion in the middle of the ring, waiting for the bell to ring.
When the bell rang, the first thing he did was kick me full blast with a round kick directly into my hip bone, which still months later throbs in pain. I didn't flinch however, I wanted to prove to him that I was tough and I wasn't going to quit, and also to the audience that was there, I wanted to show my durability and drive. So I kicked him right back with a round kick to his leg. Not soon after, I went to try and take him down, because I did not want to stand up with him being that his expertise is stand up fighting. I wanted to take him to the ground to grapple with him. I have a lot of technical skill when it comes to Jujitsu (grappling), mostly being that I know many submission holds. Derek just happens to be a lot stronger than I and a lot tougher both physically and mentally. So eventually after exchanging blows with each other on the ground, he locked me in a choke hold, and I had no choice but to submit. Afterwards, he told me I didn't deserve that belt, and that I was crazy and paranoid. And I cursed him out, saying everything under the Tuscan Sun. Everyone else, however, told me how well I did and that they were proud of me. Deividius said to me, “You did good Jordan ! You stan up to him, like man. You deserve belt. Dun worry, I talk to him, I gonna talk. Was good fight Jordan , be happy.”
Most research supports the hypothesis that the training environment and very possibly the sensei, or coach, may influence aggression. One possibility is that the head instructor acts as a role model and leads by example. “Regets (1990) reported a positive correlation between an instructor's aggressiveness and his/her student's aggressiveness. Conversely, a negative correlation between an instructor's traditional characteristics and his/hers student's aggressiveness was observed.”
A week later, I was surprised when I received a phone call from Derek himself, asking me to come in so that we could speak. He stated that he and I in fact have had harder battles before when we were just training. The only reason this was so intense was because of the emotions involved. We worked out our issues and ended the feud. He said he was going to give me something last week but decided to wait since I did curse him out. He awarded me the next belt. He said he respected that I stood up to him and held my own in the ring. And that I deserve to wear this belt. “And thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment which had been officially recognized, a nervous condition for which I was no way responsible:” (Proust, p.50 – p.51)
For now, all he wants from me is to be a humble student. I am to train with him in kickboxing, and remain training with Dave in grappling. This whole long feud between Derek and I had finally died, and now all that there is to do is move positively forward into the future…..Hopefully.
It is not entirely clear on how Mixed Martial Arts lead to positive psychosocial changes. Despite the unanswered questions about how these changes occur, it is possible that MMA will find a nitche in the treatment of psychological disorders.
My discussions with Dr. Joyce Wyden, clinical psychologist in Manhattan , New York , revealed her impressions of the psychological benefits and limitations of Mixed Martial Arts training. We also touched upon the potential for reducing violence in adolescents as well as pre-adolescents. The psychological effects of MMA training, in her experience with patients and subjects who are fighters, vary in the walk-a-day life.
Ideally, MMA helps one's mental health. Of course, if in training, a fighter does not perform well or at least to the standards of his/her head instructor, than it can become detrimental to one's mental health. In her (and my own) opinion, if one does not have patience, then they will not succeed in the martial arts. Since progress is in itself a process, especially in MMA, patience as well as diligence is essential in the pursuit of an MMA Black Belt. Some would argue that it is essential to bettering oneself as a whole in life altogether. “Unfortunately, a sizeable number of beginners will give the training little chance to affect them or really get to know what it involves because they will drop out after a few practice sessions or lessons. Some students who continue to train will be afraid of suffering physical injury. A few will resent their teacher's criticism.” (Krauz, p.104) “They did not even credit him with talent at all. They did not do so, because they did not know. We say that originality, charm, delicacy, strength; and then one day we realize that it is precisely all this that adds up to talent.” (Proust, p.137) “A small number may enjoy bullying or hurting those weaker than themselves. However, the training they undergo is designed for a fairly wide range of personality types and should not exclude anyone falling into the broad category considered ‘normal' in our society.” (Kauz, p.104 - p.105)
In terms of stress reduction, MMA training includes breathing and relaxation exercises as well as visualization drills which can reduce anxiety. According to Dr. Wyden, ideally, martial arts training can help you learn to manage stress: refreshed and renewed - instead of frazzled, in control – instead of hassled, at peace – instead of angry, and calm – instead of nervous. Other benefits may include the learning of self respect and respect for others. These are two characteristics that discourage forms of negative social behavior. It is optimal for MMA training to make one a humble person not just in the ring, but in every aspect of everyday life.
Dr. Wyden theorized that by releasing their aggressions in the ring, they may reduce the likelihood of aggressive acts outside the ring. It is possible that learning fighting skills may affect the inhibiting factors to aggressive acts, possibly by removing fears of retaliation. If a fighting art promotes the control of the alarm response, giving a “cool head”, than the psychological clues which might indicate an aggressive attack will be absent from many situations.
“If we use Geen's (1990) model of aggression we can consider what effect learning the fighting arts has on the background factors, the immediate elicitors, and the modifying, external factors. It is quite possible that effects might be seen on such items such as stress levels, general arousal, frustration, fear and the perception of being attacked. It is also possible that learning fighting skills may affect the inhibiting factors to aggressive acts, possibly by removing fears of retaliation.” (uoguelph.ca, p. 12)
In a study by Kutz and Weiser, “Mixed Martial Artists enhance self esteem through the provision of physical activity and group experience, and the teaching of relaxation, concentration, assertiveness, and honestly in communication. Thus, they are understood to be a legitimate form of therapy, for both neurotic and some chronically mentally ill patients.” (1995)
Unfortunately, not all studies have shown that participation in the martial arts reduces aggressive and antisocial behavior. Some students feel the need to control or intimidate others. They become more arrogant as a result of their in-ring training. In a study by Endresen and Olweus, “The relationship between participation in power or fight and strength sports, and violent and antisocial behavior was examined in 477 boys age 11-13 over a 2 year period. The results strongly suggest that participation in power sports leads to an increase or enhancement of antisocial involvement in the form of elevated levels of violent as well as nonviolent antisocial behavior of sports.” (May, 2005)
The psychological impact of MMA training varies depending on the student, the teacher, and the method of training. Martial Arts are designed to elicit from every student a total mental and physical commitment and involvement. As their bodies become relaxed and settled, their minds in a matter of speaking begin to change in this direction. Depending on how the student integrates his/her training will determine his/her direction both in martial arts training and in life. As a famous philosopher once said, “The ends justify the means.”
Most students of Mixed Martial Arts begin their training with the idea of improving self-defense, satiating their competitive spirit, and/or getting in shape. As their training progresses, they may come to realize that their teacher considers of primary importance such as self-knowledge and self-realization. The eastern view of martial arts considers the mind to be as important as the body. “Martial Arts teachers who share this view see themselves as helping their students as a whole.” (Kauz, p.28) A famous Mixed Martial Artist who has espoused the view of martial arts as dealing with the students mind is Guy Mezgar.
In April 2004, Guy Mezgar, a well-renowned mixed martial arts fighter, came to my MMA School to give a seminar. I had met Guy previously, because he is best friends with my head instructor, Derek Panza. Guy is a former Pride and UFC multiple time world champion as well as King of Pancrase (another ultimate fighting event). He trains with my favorite fight team, The Lions Den. He actually is one of the leaders of the Lions Den along with famous Mixed Martial Artist and former Professional Wrestler, Ken Shamrock. I could not wait for Guy to come up and give his seminar. I looked forward to it so much.
The seminar lasted about three hours one Saturday afternoon in April. He first taught us some innovative grappling moves that were previously unknown by all the participants in this seminar, myself included. Now of course a move cannot truly be learned unless it is demonstrated by the instructor and then performed by the student. One of the moves he taught us was a reversal into a leg lock. How this works is if I was fighting an opponent, and I threw a round kick to him, but he grabs and holds my leg as a defense (which if held too long is a very dangerous and risky defense), I would quickly drop to the floor with my leg that was supporting my weight going between his guard (legs in this case), while at the same time hooking one of his legs with my arms. In doing this, he would have no choice but to fall to the ground, thus landing himself in my leg lock submission hold, which in itself, is a devastating maneuver. The point of this tricky move is to be quick so your opponent doesn't have time to react, and by the time he/she figures out what is going on, he/she is already in a position where he/she would be forced to tap out (give up).
Towards the end of the seminar, Guy started talking about philosophy of martial arts. He had said that there is a difference between people who do martial arts, and martial artists. The people who do martial arts simply train as if it is a hobby or after work activity basically. Martial artists make it a point to incorporate their training into every day life: i.e. – Being a humble person, being respectful of yourself and your peers, knowing when to control your violent thoughts, and knowing when and when not to use your martial arts skills outside of the ring. “For instance, if someone says something to you that provokes your anger, you have a choice to respond or react. If you chose to respond, you may not say anything at the moment but go away to compose yourself, deal with your anger without venting at the person, and, when you are done being angry, you are operating from a position of personal control. You now have the advantage and can go back to say whatever you need to say.” (Johnson, p.140)
By the end of this seminar, I was so intrigued by Guy, as well as the immense respect I had for him, that I decided to go down to the Lions Den School in Dallas, Texas, to train with Guy and his fighters. In August 2004, I visited the Lions Den, in Dallas , Texas . This of course, caused me anxiety since I'm in a new training environment, and also I was representing Derek and Panza Mixed Martial Arts. So in my mind, I was very much pressured to impress and fight well. The first day/night, I grappled with the students, and did fairly well. Nobody was able to force me to submit, which was impressive since I was still only seventeen years old at the time and the guys I was fighting against were well in their twenties. The next day, I sparred (kickboxing) with a couple of students. Once again I did well in training and was able to hold my own with my opponents. The next few days, was pretty much just instruction training from Guy and his main trainer, Ray.
One night, Guy had taken me and his staff out to dinner in downtown Dallas . I remember feeling like this was the best time of my life. I was actually getting to go out with Guy Mezgar and his posse. That night I felt so important and powerful. It was like for once, I knew I really had a purpose in life, and that was to follow my dreams in MMA (which would later turn into training fighters, not fighting myself). Guy had told me that night about his childhood. He actually got into some trouble as well when he was growing up. And he used martial arts to channel his energy into doing something good with his life, rather than beating people up in the streets. As accomplished as Guy is, he never bragged or gloated about anything. He talked about himself as if he was equal to me, even in MMA, which I found astonishing. And I asked him if it was worth it for me to fight despite the fact that I may never win a championship. Guy and Ray as well, both said to me by committing yourself to MMA training and passing your knowledge onto others, you're accomplishing a difficult and very rewarding task. “No doubt they regarded aesthetic merits as material objects which an unclouded vision could not fail to discern, without one's needing to nurture equivalents of them and let them slowly ripen in one's own heart.” (Proust, p. 206)
The day I was setting to fly back home, Ray had said to me that he enjoyed training with me, and hopes to do so in the future. And then he said something to me that I will never forget and still to this day consider it to be the biggest compliment. He said, “ Jordan , you're a great compliment to Derek's school and his teachings.” Of course as soon as I got back to New York , that was the first thing I relayed to Derek. Derek seemed to be so proud of me that I went to train down there and held my own. I believe I had made him happy that day. These were the moments that I lived for. There is no better feeling than having your extremely tough and strict head instructor give you his complete and total approval in your work and your training.
The vast majority of Martial Arts schools run their belt systems/training curriculums horribly. Students get promoted in their ranks way too quickly. The reason for this is due to monetary factors. If a student is promoted, then they will become happy, thus encouraging them to renew their memberships to their respective martial arts schools. Also, another reason for wrongful inflation in student rankings is because many of the owners of these martial arts schools want to say that they have produced many black belts in their training system which they believe enhances their reputation. Mixed Martial Arts is a little different in the sense that the curriculum is much more rigorous than that of any other martial arts and requires full contact fighting to move up in rankings. The owners of these MMA schools unfortunately are influenced by financial gain. The idea of more money pushes them to lessen the load required of an MMA black belt. In a utopian world, if I ran my own MMA School , things would be much different…
I just came out of a meeting with Vince McMahon, the chairman of WWE, feeling enlightened and empowered with the new project of opening up my own MMA School . Vince has agreed to support me financially in all my endeavors concerning this new MMA School I'm planning on building. He has expressly voiced his utter excitement in this project and his trust in me.
First off, I will plan the infrastructure/equipment that I will have in the gym. I plan to create a huge space that would contain two main areas; a training/fighting space, and a live-fighting space for all competitors and guest speakers/fighters to perform and give seminars/lectures. The training area will have all matted floors, as to be ideal for ju-jitsu (grappling) training. Every single kickboxing bag/pad that has ever been created will be available for trainers and students to use. I will have one room that is completely mirrored to hold various kickboxing fitness classes in. There will be a ring, an octagon, and a new creation of my devious mind: a circular platform surrounded by a barbed wired steel cage. The significance of the barbed wired cage around the circular platform (fighting area) being that it shows no way out for the competitors; symbolically saying that the only way to win is to beat your opponent so bad, that he can't answer the count of 10 or can't bare the pain of a ruthless submission hold.
The fighting/lecture area will be arranged with stadium style seating. It will be identical to the setting seen at a live fighting/wrestling event. I will hold fight sanctioned events as well as exhibitions for all types of fighters, and professional wrestlers (hence the Vince McMahon benefactor). On off times when I am not promoting an event, I will use the arena space to have guest speakers (MMA fighters, Pro Wrestlers) come to hold various seminars and lectures. Only the best in the world would be working as my employees as well as having the honor to be a guest speaker at this MMA School . “And so I would read, or rather sing his sentences in my mind, with rather more dolce, rather more lento, than he himself had perhaps intended, and his simplest phrase would strike my ears with something peculiarly gentle and loving in its intonations. More than anything else, I cherished his philosophy, and had pledged myself to it in life long devotion.” (Proust, p. 134)
I am going to run my curriculum under the rules of the Counsel of Freestyle Martial Arts. I will have every belt on the journey to black belt have four levels before eligible for a test. These levels will be shown as small stripe markings at the tips of these belts to signify the degree of the rank holder. The curriculum is going to be very rigorous, and demanding. In order to advance in the belt system, one would have to have a great knowledge and skill in Boxing, Kickboxing, and Submission Grappling. They're also going to be expected to display there knowledge in the form of live fighting. Only after the fourth degree on each belt, would I have a belt test for the student. Each degree that a student is promoted to will be awarded in class.
I am going to make sure that I have a few assistant instructors in each class to give all students, young or adult, the attention and education they need. I also would deal with parents who try to bribe me with money to promote their child or threaten to leave the gym, with great apathy. Seeing as I have a billionaire financing my gym/school, I wouldn't have to worry about client retention. I extremely resent when parents use such tactics to quicken their child's journey in the belt system. Promotions will be awarded solely based on merit and dedication. As Dracula stated in BLADE TRINITY, “Immortality will come to those who are fit for it…”
If only this wasn't a work of fiction, and a reality instead, I would be the happiest person alive. This would not only be my utopian MMA School , it would be my Utopian life all together.
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